‘Obesity crisis’ puts one million in hospital

Leicester legend: Daniel Lambert, once the heaviest man in history, was an icon of Britishness.

Are we panicking too much about obesity? Yesterday, hospital admissions data revealed the toll it takes on the health system – and sparked a debate about attitudes towards weight.

For months, Britain has been treated to the sight of ministers working out in public spaces. Health secretary Matt Hancock has been snapped running and lunging in the park. Boris Johnson has been spotted cycling around the city. All of this in the interest of setting an example of healthy living.

On Tuesday, Britons were reminded of why the government has been stressing the need for action. New statistics show that obesity-related hospital admissions topped one million between 2019 and 2020.

It is an increase of 600% in 10 years. Over 25% of men and 29% of women are now classified as obese. Many more are overweight. Since 2014, more people in England and Scotland have died of obesity-related health problems than from smoking.

The Covid-19 pandemic has underlined the need for action. Studies have shown a clear link between the countries with the most overweight citizens and the highest death rates. The prime minister himself has spoken of his brush with Covid-19 and described it as a weight-loss motivation.

If he and others manage it, they will also save public money. In 2020, the government estimated that NHS spending on obesity was about £6.1bn per year.

The crisis is bigger than Britain. Global rates of obesity tripled between 1975 and 2014. There are now more obese people than there are underweight people.

Diseases associated with being overweight, such as diabetes or heart disease, are among the most deadly in the world. Deaths from diabetes have risen 70% worldwide since 2000.

But some feel campaigns focused on concern about obesity and personal lifestyles are less effective at promoting weight loss than they are at spreading blame.

By warning of an epidemic of obesity, some argue, we run the risk of shaming individuals. The £6.1bn spent on treating the overweight is large, but the NHS budget was topped up by 10 times as much to deal with Covid-19.

The stigma attached to being overweight is an ancient one. In the Fourth Century AD, St. Augustine spoke of his shame at his appetite. Gluttony was long considered one of the seven deadly sins of Christianity. And the Ancient Greeks considered obesity proof of laziness.

Disapproval, however, was not the only attitude shown to the overweight in the UK. In the 19th Century, one of the heaviest men ever to live, Daniel Lambert, was celebrated and even depicted by cartoonists as John Bull, the embodiment of Britain himself. He was drawn towering over Napoleon.

Lambert’s final weight was 335kg. It was the heaviest ever recorded at that point. Today, it would not break the top 50.

A modern government is less likely to celebrate his life and exploits – which included wrestling a bear – than they are to point to his age when he died. He was 39.

Are we panicking too much about obesity?

Weight of the world

Yes, say some. While there are clearly dangers to being extremely overweight, talk of an epidemic shames people and casts the overweight as a drain on society. Many overweight people will face discrimination or hostility if they are treated as a problem in the newspapers. Many are healthy anyway. The panic is rooted in a fear of the undisciplined masses and undermines the mutual respect that keeps a national health system alive.

No, say others. The world needs to recognise the tremendous pressure that obesity places on the economy and the systems of health and social care. The cost of obesity to the economy could soon reach £50bn. Even more importantly, the shortened lives of those with obesity are avoidable tragedies. After the Covid-19 pandemic, it has become clear that inaction on obesity is not a choice.

You Decide

  1. Should the government pay for gym memberships to help people lose weight?
  2. Do people have a responsibility to maintain their weight in order to help keep government health spending down?

Activities

  1. In pairs, after watching the video about BMI, come up with a song about the concept that fits to the tune of Kumbaya.
  2. After reading the essay Against Exercise in the links, discuss the essay in pairs or small groups and collaborate on a letter from a keen gym goer, disagreeing with Greif.

Some People Say...

“It is not the impurity of food I fear, but that of uncontrolled desire.”

St. Augustine (354 – 430), author of The Confessions

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally acknowledged that the first modern diet was proposed by the English undertaker, William Banting. Before Banting, people tended to talk about weight loss in moral terms. By contrast, Banting argued that by cutting out sugar and starchy foods, as well as butter, beef and beer, you could lose weight. His 1863 book, Letter on Corpulence Addressed to the General Public, was a huge hit, and for a long time “Banting” became another way of saying dieting.
What do we not know?
There is still debate about the importance of calories in countering obesity. Globally, obesity has risen roughly in line with the amount of energy available in food bought by the average person. It is a fact that food becomes energy, measured in calories, which is turned to fat when not burned in exercise. However, some point to other factors, such as the bacteria in your gut, or the role played by hormones, to show that managing your weight is not just a matter of counting calories.

Word Watch

600%
Some of this increase is likely to be a result of recording procedures, as obesity has not itself risen sixfold in the same time.
Obese
A Body Mass Index (BMI) higher than 30. BMI was a measurement developed in the 19th Century. A healthy BMI is anything from 18.5 to 25, but some argue that this measure does not do justice to the complexities of a person’s health.
Overweight
With a BMI between 25 and 30.
Diabetes
Diabetics are unable to process sugar because their body does not produce enough of the hormone insulin. Very overweight people are prone to getting diabetes, and if left untreated this can result in serious illness, loss of limbs or death. Manufactured insulin is, however, widely available.
Epidemic
A disease that is growing rapidly. The World Health Organisation declared obesity to be an epidemic in 1997.
Stigma
Disapproval or disgrace. it comes from the word for a mark made by a pointed instrument. It therefore means that someone carries the sign of shame like a tattoo or a wound.
Seven deadly sins
Also known as the cardinal vices, these are seven character flaws from which most immoral behaviour flows, according to the Christian tradition. These are pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony and sloth
John Bull
A cartoon figure originally meant to mock aspects of Britishness. Bull was soon embraced as a plain-speaking stout hero, who stood up for common sense. The image was used in thousands of political cartoons
Napoleon
The leader of France at the turn of the 19th Century. He fought a war for dominance in Europe and was finally defeated at the battle of Waterloo in 1815.

Subjects

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.